My Horse Spooks At Traffic

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Dear Julie,
I rescued a Standardbred mare two years ago. She was badly abused by her previous owner and has shown some residual signs of fear. The problem that I now have with her is I find she can be very stressed in traffic. I try not to ride her to close to the road but I find some cars scare her no matter where we are. We also have to pass some traffic to get to trails and the main riding area. I try to talk to her calmly to relax her but that only works sometimes. I love her to bits but it scares me because I don’t want her to get spooked and have her get hit by a car. I don’t want to get hurt, either. What can I do?
Traffic Jam

Dear Traffic Jam,
To desensitize your horse to traffic, you will have to be very supportive of her and reassure her constantly. It’s difficult to tell what a once-abused horse may have experienced in or around traffic. To help erase the fearful memories, you’ll need to be a calm and supportive leader—directing her every step and letting her know she’s safe in any environment. It sounds like you are making some good progress already if she is sometimes accepting traffic. Here are a few more guidelines:

Begin by working on the ground in the spook-causing area. You’ll be safer on the ground and can be confident there, too. Make sure to outfit your horse in a rope halter with a long training lead attached—so that you can control her movements and let her know she can’t get away while also making sure you have room to get out of her way. Work on your advance and retreat skills. Ask a friend to drive up to you and your mare slowly as you work on despooking your horse to vehicles. I like to teach spooky horses to face their fear and as long as they face it, they can stop and relax–with lots of reassurance from me. The cardinal rule is that when the horse stops and faces something (instead of spinning and bolting), she gets a reward. She gets a rub on the neck and gets to stop and relax. Then I will gently encourage the horse to move toward whatever she is afraid of—moving one step at a time and stopping in between each step (so that I remain in control, issuing the orders) and taking time to reward.

This eventually becomes a game to the horse and he loves to work for the reward. He gets the ultimate reward when he will actually walk all the way up to the scary object and reach out and touch it with his nose.

You’ll work with a technique called “Advance and Retreat” (you can find more about this training technique at www.juliegoodnight.com when clicking on “Training Library). With any scary situation, lead your horse near the frightening place. When she turns to look at the scary thing and is calm and relaxed, praise her. When she appears tense, make her work. As soon as she shows signs of relaxation, you can let her stop. After many repetitions, she’ll learn that being relaxed is the easy solution. Being tense doesn’t make the stimulus go away. Make sure you’re not praising your horse for being tense. Many people train their horses to be fearful and tense when they speak softly and rub their horses at the moment of highest tension. Save your praise for the moments you see your horse’s head drop, or her muscles relax.

When you’re ready to ride, do so in the company of a well-seasoned horse and rider. Make sure the other horse is confident around traffic. Horses are programmed to act like the horses around them so a good role model for her will be helpful. Always turn her to face the oncoming traffic so that she can see it coming during your ride. Give her lots of reassurance by petting her and soothing her with your voice before she reacts or feels tense. Sometimes it is better to allow the horse to keep walking rather than hold her still. Horses sometimes need to be able to move their feet when they are frightened. But do not let her break into a trot.

Go to the new “Training Library” on www.juliegoodnight.com to read the article called “Advance and Retreat” that talks about a process for desensitizing a horse to a frightening stimulus. Most of all, she needs your confidence and leadership.
For a wealth of information on this and many other topics and to purchase educational videos and training equipment, visit my website, http://www.juliegoodnight.com.